COVID Is Doing Something to Our Sleep, And Even to Our Dreams : ScienceAlert

COVID Is Doing Something to Our Sleep, And Even to Our Dreams : ScienceAlert

By the end of 2022, more than 650 million COVID infections had been reported to the World Health Organization.

With the true number likely much higher and the number growing by the hundreds of thousands every week, the scientific community has focused on understanding the impact of COVID on our physical health, mental health and brain function.

Early in the pandemic, sleep scientists determined the costs and benefits of disruptions in sleep patterns. The main finding was that we slept more in isolation, but the quality of our sleep was worse.

Now a second wave of data is beginning to explain how the COVID infection is affecting our sleep and even interfering with our dreams.

The most recent meta-analysis, a review of all currently available scientific literature, estimates that 52 percent of people who contract COVID suffer from sleep disturbances during the infection.

The most common type of sleep disturbance reported is insomnia. People with insomnia usually have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep and often wake up early in the morning.

Worryingly, sleep problems sometimes persist even after recovery from the infection. A study in China found that 26 percent of people who were hospitalized with COVID showed symptoms of insomnia two weeks after discharge.

And a US study showed that people who had been infected with COVID were more likely than people who had never been infected to have sleep problems, even up to a month after a positive test for COVID.

Difficulty sleeping and long-term COVID

While most people recover quickly from COVID, some continue to have symptoms longer term. People who suffer from COVID for a long time seem to be more likely to face persistent sleep problems.

A 2021 study surveyed more than 3,000 people with long-standing COVID. Almost 80 percent of participants self-reported sleep problems, most commonly insomnia.

A more recent study collected data on both sleep duration and quality using smart wristbands. Participants with long-standing COVID generally slept less and slept less deeply than participants who had never had COVID.

The loss of deep sleep is particularly concerning, as this type of sleep reduces fatigue and strengthens concentration and memory. Lack of deep sleep may be partially responsible for the “brain fog” commonly reported during and after COVID.

The fact that COVID often interferes with sleep is also concerning because sleep helps our immune system fight infections.

Why does COVID affect our sleep?

There are many reasons why a COVID infection can lead to poor sleep. A review identified physiological, psychological and environmental factors.

COVID may have a direct impact on the brain, including areas that control wakefulness and sleep states. We don’t yet have a clear understanding of how this works, but possible mechanisms may involve the virus infecting the central nervous system or affecting the brain’s blood supply.

Typical symptoms of COVID include fever, cough and difficulty breathing. These are also known to disrupt sleep.

Poor mental health can lead to sleep problems and vice versa. There is a strong link between contracting COVID and mental health issues, especially depression and anxiety. This can be caused by concerns about recovery, loneliness or social isolation. Such disturbances can make sleep more difficult.

Meanwhile, hospitalized patients with COVID-19 may face additional difficulties trying to sleep in busy hospital settings where sleep is often disturbed by noise, treatment and other patients.

What about dreams?

The International Sleep Study for COVID-19, a global research project involving sleep scientists from 14 countries, recently published its findings on dreaming.

The study surveyed infected and uninfected participants about their dreams. Both groups had more dreams after the start of the pandemic than before.

Intriguingly, the infected participants had more nightmares than the uninfected participants, while there was no difference between the groups before the pandemic.

There’s no simple explanation for why catching COVID may increase anxiety, but mental health may still play a role. Poor mental health is often associated with nightmares. The International COVID-19 Sleep Study team found that the infected group showed more symptoms of conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Getting help

The close links between sleep and mental and physical health mean that preventing and treating disturbed sleep has never been more important and will require creative solutions from governments and healthcare providers.

If you’ve had trouble sleeping during or after COVID, or are having more bad dreams than before, you’re not alone.

Both short-term and long-term insomnia can often be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that you may be able to use through your doctor.

For less severe sleep problems, the European Academy for the Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Insomnia has compiled recommendations, some based on principles applied in CBT, that you can follow at home. This includes:

keeping a regular sleep-wake schedule limiting thinking about things that make you feel stressed at certain times of the day using your bed only for sleep and sex going to bed and getting up when you naturally feel inclined do this by sharing feelings of stress and anxiety with family and friends reduce sleep disruption due to light exposure by making sure your bedroom is as dark as possible by exercising regularly in light during the day by avoiding eating close to bedtime.

Jakke Tamminen, Lecturer in Psychology, Royal Holloway University of London and Rebecca Crowley, PhD Candidate, Psychology, Royal Holloway University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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